Archives For Grandparenting

Distant Fathers

September 30, 2014 — 9 Comments

miceChildren don’t get to choose their parents. They aren’t able to select loving parents in contrast to abusers. They can’t  express any preference about being in a home with a mom and a dad committed to them, and to one another.

But the home into which children are born matters a great deal in the direction and shape of their entire life.

It doesn’t take a genius to acknowledge that some settings are healthier than others. The ideal context (which very few of us are blessed to experience) is a home where mom and dad keep their vows to one another, and devote themselves to placing their children in the forefront of their concerns.

Those of us who are people of faith recognize a third pillar to this structure. There is spousal love, parental love, and love of God. When you have all three, you are fortunate indeed.

Sadly, for many, one or both parents are absent. They may be physically present (as my own alcoholic father was) but they are disengaged . . . unconnected . . . absent. I believe that when they are physically present but not really there, they often teach their children worse lessons than they would have learned if they were literally gone. But that’s a conversation for another day.

A study some months ago reveals that the absence of fathers during childhood can actually affect the brain of the child. Yes, you read that right—it can physically affect their brains.

In the study Dr. Gobbi and her colleagues compared social activity and brain anatomy between the two groups . . . the first, raised with both parents, and the second,  that had been raised only by their mothers. The results showed that mice raised without a father demonstrated abnormal social interactions.

This group of subjects also showed more aggressive patterns of behavior in comparison with their counterparts raised with both parents. In addition, these effects were stronger for female offspring. Interestingly females raised without fathers also had a greater sensitivity to the stimulant drug–amphetamine.*

Before continuing, it’s important to note that these experiments were conducted on animals . . . mice, to be precise. While we don’t normally think of mice as paternalistic creatures, neuroscientists assure us that these results are significant.

“Although we used mice, the findings are extremely relevant to humans,” claims Dr. Gabriella Gobbi, a researcher of the Mental Illness and Addiction Axis at the RI-MUHC, senior author and an associate professor at the Faculty of Medicine at McGill University. “We used California mice which, like in some human populations, are monogamous and raise their offspring together.”

California mice? Monogamous? Who would have thought!

Whether you place much stock in this scientific research or not, most honest individuals acknowledge the significance our father and mother share in our early formation.

C.S. Lewis’ loss of his mother and the great distance between himself and his father greatly impacted the development of his personality. Lewis goes so far as to make this confession in Surprised by Joy: “With the cruelty of youth I allowed myself to be irritated by traits in my father which, in other elderly men, I have since regarded as lovable foibles.”

Elsewhere, Lewis writes longingly of the intimate relationship he longed to have had with his own father. Describing the source of author George MacDonald’s guiding inspiration in life, he writes:

An almost perfect relationship with his father was the earthly root of all his wisdom. From his own father, he said, he first learned that Fatherhood must be at the core of the universe. He was thus prepared in an unusual way to teach that religion in which the relation of Father and Son is of all relations the most central. (George MacDonald: An Anthology).

I did not have that sort of relationship with my own father. I strove to give it as a gift to my children though. And today, while I continue to be their dad, I am acutely aware of the kind of grandfather I am.

Whether it truly affects those developing minds or not, I am committed to caring for each of them as well as is humanly possible.

_____

* You can read the quoted article in The Neuropsychotherapist here. The abstract for the original research is available here.

 

 

Storge, noun: Parental affection; the instinctive affection which animals have for their young.

Some of you will recall when I wrote about attending my wife as her nurse while she recuperated from surgery this past summer. Well, I just completed a remotely similar familial duty with my daughter and her husband the past two weeks.

We’ve all been anticipating the arrival of their fourth child and Grandpa is the on call childcare provider of choice. Well, Grandma is actually first choice . . . but since she’s a teacher, that’s not feasible. (She’ll be down here for a week to help out soon, while her husband is home recuperating from two exhausting but wonderful weeks with our inexhaustible grandchildren!)

A few days ago, our newest granddaughter breathed her first breath. I contemplated writing “entered the world,” but far less accurate. She’s beautiful, of course. And we’ll continue to pray that her inner and spiritual beauty, rather than her external appearance, will define her life.

This has gotten me thinking about C.S. Lewis’ wonderful book, The Four Loves. The following passage describes humanity’s natural love for family.

I begin with the humblest and most widely diffused of loves, the love in which our experience seems to differ least from that of the animals. Let me add at once that I do not on that account give it a lower value. Nothing in Man is either worse or better for being shared with the beasts. When we blame a man for being ‘a mere animal’, we mean not that he displays animal characteristics (we all do) but that he displays these, and only these, on occasions where the specifically human was demanded. (When we call him ‘brutal’ we usually mean that he commits cruelties impossible to most real brutes; they’re not clever enough.)

The Greeks called this love storge (two syllables and the g is ‘hard’). I shall here call it simply Affection. My Greek Lexicon defines storge as ‘affection, especially of parents to offspring’; but also of offspring to parents. And that, I have no doubt, is the original form of the thing as well as the central meaning of the word. The image we must start with is that of a mother nursing a baby, a [dog] or a cat with a basketful of puppies or kittens; all in a squeaking, nuzzling heap together; purrings, lickings, baby-talk, milk, warmth, the smell of young life.

The importance of this image is that it presents us at the very outset with a certain paradox. The Need and Need-love of the young is obvious; so is the Gift-love of the mother. She gives birth, gives suck, gives protection. On the other hand, she must give birth or die. She must give suck or suffer. That way, her Affection too is a Need-love. There is the paradox. It is a Need-love but what it needs is to give. It is a Gift-love but it needs to be needed.

As Lewis says, this storge love is a natural affection, instilled within the entire animal kingdom. That is what makes reports of people’s crimes against their own children so terribly shocking. These barbaric acts go against natural law itself. They are inhuman in the absolute sense. And witnessing them among humanity and various animal species reminds us of just how far we have fallen.

By God’s grace, such outrageous acts are the rare exception. Storge is so deeply engrained in nature’s order that we see it in nearly every direction we look. No family is perfect, but most of us are blessed with parents, siblings or other relatives who love us by virtue of our innate bonds.

However, if you are one of the unfortunates who were not loved by your father or mother . . . if you were rejected by your family, I am praying for you. Praying that you will come to know storge in its wonderful fullness through surrogate parents and siblings. After all, it’s not blood that forges these bonds—it is love. Storge is something we readily share with our spouses and our intimate friends. It is a sort of “kinship by choice.”

As I thank God for the most recent addition to our family’s number, I encourage you to thank the Lord as well for the storge love he allows you to give, and receive.

The painting above was created by Samuel De Wilde (1751-1832). And for you cat lovers who were disappointed by my selection of an image of puppies, enjoy this fine portrait of feline storge.